Based on my social media timeline, it seems a large segment of the Los Angeles Chargers fan base is convinced Hunter Henry is going to play at some point in 2018. This, of course, is being fueled by the fact that Henry, who tore his ACL on May 22, has yet to be placed on the Injured Reserve some ten weeks after sustaining the injury. The assumption here is that the team would have already placed him on the IR if they planned to do so, which obviously means he’s going to play this season.
I, for one, don’t believe this is the case. Regardless of how quickly the team placed Jason Verrett and Austin Roberts on IR after their season-ending injuries, there is no immediate need to do the same with Henry. In my opinion, this is all probably best explained by looking first at the NFL calendar, and then examining the league’s IR rules.
As far as the NFL calendar goes, teams no longer have to worry about cutting players during the preseason. Every NFL team has the flexibility of carrying a full 90-man roster through the end of the preseason, which means there is no immediate need to clear a roster spot, or even manage the roster. Once they get through the preseason, teams are required to announce their final cuts by September 1.
It actually makes sense to wait until final cuts to place Hunter on Injured Reserve Why? Because doing so gives them an easy roster chip they can manipulate as needed should they add someone after announcing the 53-man roster. Rather than exposing someone they might want to keep to waivers, they can simply create a roster spot by moving Hunter to IR.
This tactic should sound familiar because they did it with Denzel Perryman in 2017. As you may recall, Denzel injured his ankle in the preseason opener. Like Henry, he was not immediately placed on Injured Reserve. In fact, he made the team’s initial 53-man roster before being transferred to IR in order to make room for Kellen Clemens, who was cut and ultimately re-signed the following day in a cap-related move. In other words, they effectively kept a roster spot open for Clemens by delaying the inevitable with Perryman.
What’s more, being placed on IR doesn’t necessarily preclude a player from returning to the active roster during the season. The NFL has two versions of the Injured Reserve: the Injured Reserve and the Injured Reserve – Return Designation. The return designation means exactly what you think it means – Hunter would be eligible to return to the active roster later in the season.
Here is how it works: the Chargers would have to place Hunter Henry on the IR with a return designation by 4pm EST on September 1. Assuming they do that, he would be eligible to return to practice after spending six weeks on the Injured Reserve. Additionally, he would be eligible to return to the active roster within eight weeks of being placed on IR.
There is no advantage to leaving him on the active roster when they can place him on the Injured Reserve with a designation to return. They could, in theory, add him to the active roster by week nine of the regular season AND have an able-bodied tight end occupy his spot on the active roster while he mends. There is no financial or strategic advantage to keeping Henry on the roster when he is unable to play, which is why the team won’t go that route.
It’s important to keep in mind that Hunter Henry sustained his injury on May 22, which means he probably won’t be physically able to return to practice or game action until November at the absolute earliest. And, assuming he makes it back in November, he would probably only be available in a very limited role.
The only other viable option for dealing with a long-term injury is the reserve/PUP list. If added to the reserve/PUP list, Hunter would be ineligible to practice or play with the team for six weeks. Once those six weeks are up, the team would have an additional six-week window to decide whether to activate Hunter, transfer him to the Injured Reserve, or release him (they obviously wouldn’t release him). Once he returns to practice, the team would have six weeks to either add him to the active roster or place him on Injured Reserve.
Assuming Henry is expected to return, the Injured Reserve with a return designation is the more prudent way to go here. It allows them to keep him without using a valuable 53-man roster spot and, most importantly, he could theoretically return to the active roster anytime between weeks 9 and 17 without having the week 12 deadline looming over them, as it would with the PUP.
Is Hunter Henry going to come back this season? No one really knows that right now, including the Chargers. But I do know this much: the fact that he been placed on the Injured Reserve yet isn’t an indication of the team’s plans either way. They simply aren’t in any immediate rush, or under any mandate, to do anything with him until September 1.
Not only that, but I’m confident the delay in adding him is not an indication that he won’t be added. I would be stunned if he didn’t wind up on the IR by 4pm EST on September 1. It would be foolish to carry someone the team knows won’t play until at least November on the active roster and, regardless of their plans, placing him on Injured Reserve is the definition of Roster Management 101. It’s all but inevitable.
Not even the Chargers are incompetent enough to botch this. (Kidding…sort of…)